It’s one of the sillier ordeals in recent art history. Lying down, Nayland Blake dons the ritual bunny suit, a costume so heavy that he needs three people to help him stand. Ponderously, since he now weighs over 400 pounds, the artist climbs a few steps to a miked stage and proceeds to dance or, perhaps more accurately, to shuffle.
The camera rolls, for this is an ordeal disguised as a music video. Somewhere off-camera, Blake’s boyfriend, Philip Horvitz, can be heard directing the choreography. Blake says he especially likes the parts where Horvitz “draws on tradition” and tells him, “You’ve got a cane. You’re doing a two-step.” A Michael Jackson song floats through the background, with the familiar Jacksonian demand, “Stop pressuring me.” But Blake’s feet are louder. He’s added taps to the bottom of his size 13s. He sounds like the entire cast of Stomp.
“This is where I’m starting to lose it,” says Blake about 13 minutes into this bunny hop. Horvitz has just directed him to touch his finger to the top of his head, but Blake can’t manage more than a quasi-salute. He looks punch-drunk. “Look over your right shoulder,” says the choreographer. “Impossible to do!” Blake barks at the screen. The rabbit suit equals the weight of his boyfriend, 146 pounds. “I’m carrying him,” Blake explains. The suit is white flannel, lined with silk, and weighted with many packets of navy beans. More bulbous than any sumo, topped with two stubby ears, the artist looks ridiculous. He explains that “hopefully” his shame is showing. Among other things.
The rabbit suit carries so much symbolic baggage for Blake: His relationship with his boyfriend, his feelings about his weight, his own molting identity. When the dance ends, he can’t lift his leg the couple inches required to descend to the top step. He has to lie down on the stage and be extracted from the suit.
Given his penchant for crafting work from kid stuff like puppets, bunnies, and sweets, Blake’s work often looks like some twisted take on childhood pleasures. Of course, fairy-tale trappings often hide a malevolent force. The artist’s new show, “Double Fantasy,” expands on themes of nurturing, intimacy, and submission that came up in his last exhibition. That show featured a walk-in house made of gingerbread and a videotape in which the artist sat passively while a black man stood behind him, insistently feeding him.
Blake pulls out a book about antique toys. Here is what inspired the new video, he says, pointing at pictures of black minstrel dancers, once popular windup toys: “Jazzbo Jim” dancing on a log cabin roof; “Tombo” dancing on a platform labeled “Alabama Coon Jigger.” The stage where his bunny waddles is the flattened top of a miniature log cabin (not visible in the video). But a minstrel?
The artist’s father is African American, though, as Blake puts it, “My race is not visible. My fat is.” So that’s what he chose to exaggerate for the piece. “I stopped dieting. I just got tired of constantly monitoring myself,” he explains. He is 6’2″ and weighs about 270. “So the piece is about being monstrous. Being fat is one of the last sins left in society.”
Blake used to associate the rabbits in his work with gay sexuality, with lust and indeterminate gender; Bugs Bunny in drag. Now, he says, “I’m using the rabbit as this metaphor for something that’s sort of in-between race. Of indeterminate race. That came from thinking about Br’er Rabbit and Uncle Wiggily. Those stories are West African folktales that came into this country with slaves. They’re like the progenitor of Bugs Bunny. So in thinking of my own racial identity, I kept sort of using this rabbit metaphor.”
He admits to a time in his life when he thought he didn’t have to think about race. Now, looking back, he finds that it’s always been buried in his work, and he’s begun to excavate it. “I feel like I do have some guilt about not being readily visible as black. In some ways, that’s a position of privilege, but in some ways it’s also a position of embarrassment. I mean, it’s not a question of trying to pass.”
The new show includes a sculpture of a small log cabin, on its roof a rabbit/minstrel/ puppet who is also a skeleton. Another sculpture resembles a tall coat tree with eight arms, one bunnyesque tar baby hanging from each of them, while on the circular shelf below them sit about 20 angel food cakes. Blake says he didn’t realize till he made the thing just how much it resembles a lynching photo.
Double Fantasy is the John Lennon-Yoko Ono album intended to celebrate their relationship. Blake’s show is also about making visible his bonds with both his boyfriend of 10 years and his mother. He sees his father, now in South Carolina, only sporadically. “I think that’s one of the things now coming up in the work. Where is he?” He’s redone the big Dad tattoo he wears on his arm in a drawing for this show, so that now it reads Dead.
The gesture toward his mother also seemed confrontational—at first. Last August, Blake lined the walls of her bedroom with gingerbread, then asked Nan Goldin to photograph it. Some of the photos appeared in Nest, others in the current show. We see the mother in bed, mattress on the floor, the gingerbread making it cozy. This is the Upper West Side apartment where Blake spent most of his childhood. He says gingerbread wasn’t exactly a favorite food. He just likes the fact that, cut into 10-inch squares, “it kind of looks like Masonite.”
After he installed the big gingerbread house in his last show, intending to evoke both Hansel and Gretel and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he found that gallery goers were breaking bits off, eating the work. The inside of that house, he admits, was “buttery.” He’d come in and find bite marks on the walls. (When the house sold to a collector, he had to bake a set of replacement squares.) Blake decided on the gingerbread room for his mother because of her response to that show. She liked the house but told him the feeding video was disturbing, “just all the variety of stuff you were eating. But I could see pigging out on the gingerbread for an hour.”
The gingerbread remained on the walls of her room for three and a half weeks. She told her son that while sleeping in that sweet ambience, she started remembering her dreams for the first time. He decided that the piece was “a vehicle for me to be more tender with her.”
Blake begins his projects intuitively, but then he’ll ask: What does it mean to say this is the work of a gay man? Or to say this is the work of a black man? Maybe that changes the meaning of the bunny suit. And everything else.
Asked whether he now identifies as black, Blake says, “In recent years I’ve been trying to. To see what that does.”
“Double Fantasy” is at Matthew Marks, 523 West 24th Street, through May 13.